How San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood is battling toxic air

The neighborhood has been a pollution dumping ground for decades

Kamillah Ealom is no stranger to masks. Even before the pandemic, she would wake up in her house in the Bayview, take note of smoggy skies and don a face mask for the rest of her day.

Born asthmatic, Ealom spent most of her childhood attached to an oxygen tank. She’s endured countless asthma attacks, including one that put her in the hospital for two weeks as a teenager.

Bad air days, an all-too-common occurrence in the Bayview, put her at risk of severe symptoms.

“People just deal with it, but we shouldn’t have to breathe that in,” she said. “It makes me feel like we’re abandoned out here.”

Now, Ealom is fighting back. In early November she started as the lead Bayview community organizer for Greenaction, an environmental justice organization that’s done advocacy work in the neighborhood for nearly three decades.

About 9% of neighborhood residents suffer from asthma, according to a data tracker from the University of California, San Francisco. That compares with about 7% citywide, according to local health department estimates.

Asthma is the body’s response to triggers, often airborne. Airway inflammation constricts the throat, causing wheezing, shortness of breath, cough and other respiratory symptoms that can make basic activity difficult.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, pollution can increase the likelihood of a person contracting asthma or make an existing condition more severe. The Bayview is full of it.

Tucked along San Francisco’s southeastern flank, the neighborhood has been the dumping ground for The City’s most toxic activities for decades: a wastewater treatment plant, a former Navy nuclear research facility turned Superfund site; a PG&E power plant on the shoreline; and a slew of industrial activities such as factories, bus yards and metal scrap lots.

Data from the statewide agency in charge of improving environmental health shows the entirety of Bayview-Hunters Point continues to endure The City’s worst exposure to pollution and toxins such as diesel fumes, lead from house paint and hazardous waste.

The CalEnviroScreen looks at the state by census tract. Data released in October found the commercial heart of the Bayview — the area between Third Street and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and buttressed by Palou and Yosemite avenues — is the community most affected in The city by environmental hazards, chiefly pollution, and therefore the most vulnerable to poor health impacts among residents.

Census tracts are ranked on a scale of 0 to 100, the score representing the community’s vulnerability to a number of environmental health hazards. This particular tract in the center of the Bayiew has a score of 92. It’s among the worst statewide.

“It confirms what people in these communities have known for years,” said Bradley Angel, the executive director of Greenaction.

City officials acknowledge how urban planning and land use policies have caused The City’s southeastern neighborhoods, where the majority of residents are Black, Latino or Asian American Pacific Islander, to live with unclean air.

“Heavy industry, including polluting power generation, created significant impacts in these areas, and systematic racism in government and other institutions confined communities of color to these neighborhoods,” said Dan Sider, chief of staff for the Planning Department.

Asthma isn’t the only health problem related to bad air and other environmental toxins.

Males in Bayview-Hunters Point were disproportionately represented in total cases of lung cancer citywide between 2008 and 2012, for example, according to an analysis from the Greater Bay Area Registry. People diagnosed with breast cancer in the neighborhood were also less likely to survive than those in neighborhoods in other parts of The City, according to data from 2006 to 2015.

Both studies cautioned causality can’t be proven with something as complex as cancer.

Research draws a straighter line between air pollution and pre-term birth, which has a cascade of negative effects on both a mother and baby, such as cerebral palsy or asthma.

Pregnant women who lived near coal and oil power plants in California — like the one that PG&E used to operate in the Bayview — were more likely to experience pre-term birth. Once those plants closed, as PG&E’s did in 2006, the prevalence of pre-term births decreased, a study from the American Journal of Epidemiology shows.

These realities show “San Francisco is seen globally as a leader in environment and climate issues, but that is not well-deserved,” Angel said.

Grassroots organizing has helped spur progress in the right direction, advocates say. Decades of opposition forced the closure of the PG&E plant, and it rallied attention around the Navy’s subpar clean-up of the shipyard, which was revealed by the nonprofit watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap.

But there’s more work to be done, advocates say.

How policymakers envision the future of The City says a lot about their values.

The Planning Department made amendments to the General Plan — a long-term set of objectives to guide growth and development — to reflect a focus on improving air quality and environmental health in the Bayview. Theoretically, this means The City’s decisions should be guided by a commitment to making sure its southeastern corner doesn’t continue to get stuck with polluters. And, it means The City should support projects that promote clean air and resiliency.

Central to Ealom’s work as a community organizer is her belief that knowledge is power. She wants to build off the progress made with the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitoring Project, which made available real-time information on particulate matter in the neighborhood. It deployed 10 air monitors throughout the neighborhood, provided help connecting to WiFI in many of these spots, and put the information on a public website called IVAN.

“It’s my passion and my responsibility to make sure we get this information out there so that we can take action and come up with solutions and ultimately create change,” she said.

With its community partners, Greenaction will launch a public education campaign around the relationship between dirty air and poor health outcomes, and what steps people can take to affect change.

“People feel like we aren’t concerned,” Ealom said. “We are concerned with what we’re breathing. We do care about environmental issues and environmental justice.”

Carly wrote this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship. cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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